A Backward-Looking Theme Emerges
c.2014 New York Times News Service
MILAN — And so the ravening fashion hordes have come to Milan, heels click-clacking, iPhones at the ready. Talk of Scotland’s independence has been traded for talk of reform, thanks to Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, and his out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new imperative. At Gucci, however, it wasn’t entirely clear that its creative director, Frida Giannini, had gotten the memo.
Revisiting the brand’s 1970s heyday, she offered up a vintage-tinged, albeit crisply energetic, parade of faded denim cropped sailor trousers paired with skinny ribbed knits, maroon and forest green suede trenches with rows of brass buttons, and marching-band jackets with gold braid. Soigné burnt-orange jersey halter dresses were piped in kimono stitching; above-the-knee crisp cotton shirtwaists had pirate lacing up the front; and silk cocktail dresses reminiscent of the easy, flirty shapes of Giannini’s early years at Gucci were pieced together from Asian-inspired prints and glinted with beaded tracings.
Over it all came cropped fantasia jackets of multiple furs and colors, sometimes with crystals, sometimes not. And to offset the clothing were relatively utilitarian leather bags, all sporting Gucci’s red-and-green military strap. Imagine if Jimi Hendrix and Ali MacGraw had a love child after a secret tryst in Kyoto, and you’ll get the idea.
It was, in other words, if not exactly new, at least a newish take on older stylings. And proof that, if you are going to dip into the rummage bin of history, it’s not a bad idea (at least in the fashion context) to remix what you find.
The Road to Independence
Whether or not the pundits are right and the Scottish situation goes viral across Europe and beyond, one thing is certain: Fashion has seen independence as a potential trend. “Trend” being the operative word, because that makes it fair game for the industry.
So here was Alberta Ferretti saying her collection was about expressing “the sense of freedom possessed by women who think for themselves.”
And there was MaxMara, claiming as inspiration “unconventional women who redefined the concept of beauty.”
And there was Fendi, taking its own road to the future.
You can understand the impulse: What’s on the runways reflects the zeitgeist, which is a clichéd way of saying what’s on the runways works when it reflects what people who might wear it are thinking about. Otherwise it is irrelevant; pretty perhaps, but pointless.
The tricky thing, for designers at least, is figuring out what, exactly, “independence” means for them. Is it a direct riposte to the sartorial status quo? A smorgasbord of offerings, one for every taste? A break with their own well-worn signatures? Actually, at least as the Milan shows kicked off, it seemed to mean ... the 1970s!
Ferretti took a look back to the hippie tribes of the late 1960s and early '70s. Or rather, their uniforms: Juliet-worthy mousseline nightgowns, occasionally sprinkled with blooms for an extra dose of flower power; flesh-colored macramé pants and lace-edged jumpsuits; fringed suede vests and floral ponchos; silk dresses made from a bright, afghan-like patchwork print.
Presumably she was connecting with the idea of rejecting the establishment and those who did it in days of yore. And the focus on the casual, albeit the subtly extravagant casual, marked a positive change from Ferretti’s more complicated, and occasionally fussy, red carpet looks. Still, it’s unclear how dressing just like a whole bunch of individuals who came before represents a woman thinking for herself.
So what if she dresses like one individual instead? Such was the approach of MaxMara, which mined the 1970s of Anjelica Huston, with head-to-toe Marimekko-like prints on everything from floppy rain hats to mid-calf georgette dresses and matching boots. It made a statement, unquestionably, and reduced to its elements could be charming (in real life, as opposed to runway life, a little print goes a long way). But natty jackets and dusters piped in white were even more so; ditto light suede trenchcoats. In their classicism, they transcended their roots, and were the better for it. They didn’t break with tradition, but they did modernize it.
“Forget the past, forget vintage,” Silvia Fendi said backstage, referring to the creative director Karl Lagerfeld’s favorite dictum, which provoked something of a sigh of relief. Off the chains of history! Forward, march.
And then the models did, in abbreviated A-line minidresses marked by a geometric maze of sheer insets, and tiny leather skirts and tinier leather jackets laser-cut into three-dimensional orchids. There were shaved and sculpted mink bombers in an orchid print (it may be a spring collection, but this is a skins house, after all) and “cage” minidresses made from strips of leather sporting multicolored organza feathers mixed with tufts of fox.
Some of it worked, and some of it tipped over into sci-fi territory (the cage), but as a whole it conveyed a confidence and point of view that didn’t belong to any time but the present. And it began to seem as if, when it comes to dress, perhaps liberation from any obvious reference may be the most effective declaration of independence of all.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
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Less than 10 days after Apple stole New York Fashion Week’s thunder comes another enormously important, globally resonant event that has nothing to do with the shows. The Alibaba IPO — that is, the New York Stock Exchange listing by the Chinese e-commerce giant — could change e-tail as we know it. Faced with such competition, what’s a nice Milanese brand to do?
Look to the past, young man, look to the past.
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The overwhelming trend of the Italian ready-to-wear shows has been memory lane, and very specifically the memory lane of almost four decades ago. You know something is going on when even a “new” designer like Marco de Vincenzo, whose work is marked by an inventive facility with color and fabric, starts playing with macramé, fringe and basket-weave — though to his credit, in his hands they became something else entirely: the silk fringing a vehicle for movement in miniskirt suits and flapper dresses; the weave a rainbow checkerboard in a snakeskin coat.
Nevertheless, when Miuccia Prada trucked in 150 tons of purple sand and piled it in dunes atop a brown-carpeted runway, it was not about, as some in her audience posited, “desert rose” or “Middle East” or some sort of Martian landscape. The actual answer, according to the designer, who was dispensing her trademark gnomic explanations after the show, was the “confrontation of antiquity and today.”
On the runway there were narrow notch-collared belted trenches, the seams picked out in contrast stitching. Also truncated “jean” jackets and matching skirts, likewise piped; smocked and folkloric details; and coats that looked as if they had been patched together from an old quilt.
The silhouette was lean — sleeveless tunics over pencil skirts; round-necked thin-strapped dresses with neatly demarcated waists, narrow skirts and sometimes a yoke of luxe material inset. The fabrics were brocade and chinoiserie and leather, mixed with raw linen, most often with unfinished hems trailing loose threads, and the mood was 1970s-meets-grandmother’s trunk. Pulled into the present, the result had an alluring, wistful prettiness with a 10-gallon edge. “Antiquity” is clearly a relative concept in a world where a five-year-old garment qualifies as vintage, though given that Prada made her name by challenging perceived notions of the decade that fashion once forgot (or tried to), she has a legitimate claim to the archaeology of her own line.
As do both Etro and Missoni, names that came to prominence at that time, which perhaps is the key to explaining the current catwalk situation. The 1970s were, in Italian fashion terms if nothing else, a halcyon era.
Etro, for example, was founded in 1968 and shot to prominence on a rocket ship of paisley. So really, it should come as no surprise that the print was present for spring, along with associated staples of Pocahontas-channeling earth mothers: feathers, fringe and Indian beading. Often all at the same time.
And though Missoni, whose zigzags practically defined the prepower shoulder/bling jet set, made some effort to shake off the dust of heritage, it was visible in light-as-air embroidered lace maxidresses, rainbow stripes fading into each other for the merest suggestion of tie-dye, and palazzo-wide trousers paired with oversize silk button-down shirts. Treated with restrained celebration, it made for an effective point of contrast.
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Even, perhaps, something for a future Alibaba’s cave.